A half dozen blackbirds perched themselves on the makeshift scarecrow on the edge of the snowy garden. The figure wore Preacher Jesse Zook's own black trousers and green shirt, which had already seen better days when twenty-year-old Annie had snatched them up, rescuing them from the rag bag. The long shirtsleeves had been rolled up months before to reveal the straw man's upper appendages. Now the old felt hat and wind-tattered clothing were quite frozen, unyielding in February's blustery gale.
The stark white clapboard farmhouse was a welcoming sight in the fading light as Jesse made his way to the back porch. Stomping his snow-caked boots against the steps before making his way indoors, he was immediately aware of a tantalizing aroma.
Barbara's zesty veal loaf.
He hurried to the sink to wash up. "Smells wonderful-good, love."
"It's just us tonight," his wife said from the cookstove, her black apron barely spanning her fleshy middle.
"Oh? And where are the boys and Annie . and Louisa?"
Barbara Zook straightened, her face pink from the heat of the old stove. "Well, our sons were each wearin' their for good clothes, headed for some business in town."
Jesse nodded and gave a breathy chuckle. "Which means they each have themselves a girl. And Annie? Where's she keepin' herself this Saturday night?"
Barbara explained that a friend of Louisa's was flying in from Denver. "Annie hired one of the Mennonite drivers to take her and Louisa to the Harrisburg airport."
Another Englischer coming yet, Jesse thought. There had been nothing smart about his permitting Annie's fancy friend to stay this long, either. And now there would be two of them?
Since Louisa Stratford's arrival, Jesse regularly tossed in bed, wishing he had done things differently back when he might've changed the outcome of all the foolishness between Annie and her longtime pen pal, who was, more often than not, referred to as Lou by not only Annie but now Omar, Luke, and Yonie, his three teenaged sons. A young woman with a masculine nickname--downright peculiar.
Even so, this Lou had kept Annie here amongst the People. She seemed to be something of a balm to his daughter's soul, as well. For that, he was obliged.
He dried his hands on the towel and dropped into his chair at the head of the table. He considered his daughter's promise to refrain from painting pictures such as the one on the cover of last month's Farm and Home Journal, which he had prudently hidden away in the barn. When Annie set her mind to do something, she generally followed through. The difficulty was in knowing whether or not she'd been sincere when she gave her word to him some days back.
He recalled the time he'd caught his only daughter drawing in the barn as a wee girl, and her promising never to do it again. Some offspring were mighty easy to know, to have a real, firm connection with--and he certainly had this with his sons. But Annie? Well, they had the typical family rapport, but she was different . which was to be expected, he guessed. After all, she was a daughter.
Put aside your sin and give obedience a chance, he'd told her. And she had shaken his hand on it.
Now his present appetite for food quelled the jumble in his head, and he was pleased to see Barbara bringing the meat platter to the table and setting it down near him. She returned to the counter for a bowl of creamy scalloped potatoes sprinkled with bacon bits, and there were serving dishes of buttered red beets and of snow peas. When she'd seated herself to his right, he bowed for a silent prayer.
Afterward they ate without speaking, for the most part. No need for his wife to be made privy to those things that caused him continual irritation.
Truth be known, it wasn't just Annie's worldly pen pal that concerned him so much. No, his grim memories of an impromptu burial--the remains of one Isaac Hochstetler, too young to die--also kept him awake at night. Jesse had been the one to handle the small knit of bones while the bishop gingerly pointed the flashlight over the hole as Jesse dug. Then he placed the skeleton in a clean burlap bag, laying it to rest back a ways from the cemetery itself. The knowledge of the lad's remains lying in the undisclosed grave gave him the willies . as though he and the bishop had done something altogether deplorable.
With the bishop's agreement, he had told Zeke where Isaac had been laid to rest. Zeke's response had been troubling.
Now Barbara spoke up suddenly as she served a piece of pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream. "I guess Louisa's friend won't be stayin' with us."
Jesse grunted. "Why's that?"
"Evidently Courtney Engelman turned up her nose, according to Annie. Wanted electricity, I guess."
He felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle out. "This one's a gut friend of Louisa's, ya say?"
"Well, she must be, 'cause she was goin' to be in Louisa's wedding back last fall."
"So where's this Englischer stayin'?"
"That perty Maple Lane Farm guesthouse, over yonder." Barbara forced a smile. She looked down at her generous slice of pie, not speaking for the longest time. "I . uh, I've been meaning to tell ya something," she said, meeting his gaze.
He touched her arm. "What is it, dear? You look all peaked."
"Well, jah, I s'pose I am," she said softly. "I've been having dreams--the same one--for a week now. 'Tis awful strange. Isaac Hochstetler's back in Paradise . like nothing ever happened to him." Tears filled her eyes and she reached up her dress sleeve and pulled out a small handkerchief, her lower lip quivering.
"Ach, Barbara ." He did not know what to say to comfort her. He couldn't just come out with the fact that Isaac could never, ever simply return. His bones were the final proof, although scarcely a soul was aware of them, aside from the bishop, himself, and Zeke. "I'm sorry your dreams are so troubled," he managed to say, stroking Barbara's hand.
Jesse retired to his rocking chair, mentally adding his wife's woes to his own while sitting near the fire. After a time, once Barbara was finished with her kitchen duties and had turned her attention to her needlework, he got up and donned his old work coat, carrying his uncertainties silently to the barn. He went straight for the rolled-up magazine cover, tucked away in the haymow in a safe and out-of-the-way place, where he had also hidden the old rope swing. He'd thought of turning it over to Zeke years ago but could never bring himself to relinquish it. More recently he had thought of simply burning it in a bonfire.
He sat on an old willow chair--his "thinking chair," he liked to call it. His father, a sage if ever there was one, had crafted the now ragged-looking chair in a hodgepodge sort of symmetry. Jesse had helped gather the willow sticks in early spring, when the sap was running, he recalled.
Now he looked at the cover art--Annie's own--holding it in his callused hands for at least the hundredth time, so mesmerizing it was.
Why would she choose to paint this?
He huddled against the cold, breathing in the pungent scents of manure and feed. Comforted by the presence of the livestock, he pondered Annie's odd decision to paint the very place where Isaac had been abducted.
How could she possibly remember him yet? Does Isaac haunt her dreams, as well? * * *
Louisa and Annie stood near the baggage claim area, across from the rental car counters, waiting for Courtney's arrival. Terribly fidgety, Louisa adjusted her head covering, then went to check the monitor for the second time. "Looks like her plane's late," she told Annie, returning.
"Hope everything's all right." Annie frowned slightly. "But you know more 'bout all this"
"Oh, it won't be much longer."
Annie excused herself, asking Louisa to "stay put," then headed toward the ladies' room.
Louisa hoped Annie wouldn't have any trouble finding her way back again. But then she realized how easy it would be to spot Annie here in this rather smallish airport with not another Amish person anywhere in sight.
In a few minutes, Courtney came gliding down the escalator, lanky as a model, her carry-on bag slung over her shoulder. Louisa gave a little wave when Courtney got closer, but Courtney kept walking.
"Court?" she called after her, very aware of how pretty her friend's shiny brown hair looked swinging loose around her shoulders. A slight twinge of envy nagged her, but Louisa pushed it away, keeping an eye out for Annie. "Courtney?" she called again.
Turning, Courtney stared at her. Really stared. "Louisa?" She literally gawked, her sea green eyes wide. Then, as if to shrug off her surprise, she said, "Well . hey, look at you." Courtney held her at arm's length, still studying her while Louisa wondered how she might explain her Plain attire to her longtime friend.
She felt terribly out of place, wishing Annie would hurry back from the rest room. "How was your flight?"
"Fine . just fine, thanks." Courtney scrutinized Louisa with a droll expression. "You said you were trying to fit in here, but . I had no idea you'd come out in public like this." At once she laughed as if making a joke.
Louisa was instantly glad Annie wasn't near. "You know what they say: ‘When in Rome .'"
Courtney still looked a bit shocked. And she was speechless now, which was a good thing, especially because Louisa turned and spotted Annie walking toward them. "There's my pen pal, Annie--the one I told you about."
"So that's your famous Amish friend," Courtney said. "I can't wait to meet her."
Annie was smiling as she hurried to Louisa's side.
"Courtney, I'd like you to meet Annie Zook. And, Annie, this is Courtney Engelman."
Annie smiled, nodded. "Welcome. Nice to meet you."
"Thanks," Courtney said, looking Annie over, obviously unable to suppress her interest. "Same here."
When the luggage from the flight arrived, Louisa went with Courtney to pick up her second bag--with five more pairs of shoes, no doubt--wondering if it was such a good idea for Courtney to have come after all.
"How long have you been dressing . uh, like this?" Courtney asked quietly while they waited at the carousel.
"Since day one. But that's a long story."
"I'll tell you all about it, Court."
When Courtney spotted her bag, she excused herself, waded through the other passengers and snatched it up.
Together, they returned to join Annie, who waited demurely near the luggage carts in her plum-colored dress, her long wool coat draped over her arm. "We're all set," Louisa said, and the three of them walked out to the curb where their driver was waiting.
"I wish you would have let me in on the dress code before I came, Louisa," Courtney whispered. "I hope you don't expect me to go around like that."
While they placed the luggage in the trunk, Louisa wished she hadn't said a word about filling Courtney in on her reason for dressing Plain. Suddenly, she felt it was flat none of her business.* * *
Annie sat quietly in a white wicker chair in the upstairs bedroom at the Maple Lane Farm B&B while Courtney got herself settled. Situated in the midst of a wide meadow, near a winding brook, the colonial inn was only a short walk to Amish neighbors, one an accomplished quilter Annie knew.
Courtney gabbed up a storm with Louisa as she plugged in her portable computer and then rustled about to find a place in the empty bureau drawers to put away her clothing.
"How's it going with your roommate?" asked Lou.
"Oh, I've got two now . one's a guy," Courtney said, lowering her voice and glancing at Annie.
"Well, when did that happen?" Lou seemed very interested.
Courtney's eyes twinkled. "It's not what you think. We're just sharing a house. And Jared's terrific in the kitchen."
"Bakes bread, too." Courtney again glanced at Annie.
Lou mentioned a dozen or more other names Annie had never heard her say before, as Annie curiously observed Lou's interaction with her English friend. It was fairly clear Lou was hungry for information about the outside world, and Courtney seemed more than willing to respond to the many inquiries, filling Lou in on the life she'd so abruptly left behind.
Annie soon began to feel like a fifth wheel but did her best to show interest. Courtney paused from the chore of unpacking and perched herself on the high canopy bed, patting the rust red and white homemade quilt.
Lou glanced sheepishly at Annie, then stared pensively at Courtney's makeup bag. Saying nothing, Lou reached up to run her fingers across the delicate edge of the lacy ecru canopy.
Courtney let herself fall back on the bed, staring up at the underside of the canopy. "Now this is elegant stuff," she muttered, looking again at Lou's plum-colored dress and black full apron, which matched Annie's. Courtney's pretty eyes drifted to Lou's white head covering and lingered at the middle part in Lou's hair.
Lou must have sensed the scrutiny and resumed her chatter, asking about Courtney's plans following graduation. Annie felt increasingly awkward, listening in on their banter like a moth on the stenciled wall.
At one point, Lou glanced at her watch. "We need to get going, over to Zooks'," she said.
Courtney frowned. "I should freshen up."
"Ach, you're just fine," Annie said.
"Yeah, let's go," Lou said. "Annie's mom's the best pie baker in the civilized world."
Courtney's eyebrows rose at that.
"Let's not keep her waiting," Lou urged.
Courtney shook her head. "Really, Louisa. I need time to unwind. I feel like I'm still flying. I'll join you tomorrow."
Lou gave in. "All right, I suppose you do look like you could use a bubble bath." The way she said it, Annie guessed she might long for one herself. "Glad you're here safely, Courtney. I guess Annie and I'll head home."
"Home?" Courtney gave Lou a curious look.
Annie wondered what her friend would say, but Lou only winked as if revealing a private joke. "You know . home for now."
Courtney nodded, then reached to feel Lou's dress sleeve, grimacing as if she'd touched a hot burner. "What sort of fabric is this, anyway?" Lou looked sheepish again, but Courtney's expression turned animated. "I think we've got a lot of catching up to do."
Lou's smile returned.
Annie spoke up, offering to return for Courtney with the horse and buggy first thing in the morning.
Courtney shook her head. "Maybe if I had directions, I could walk over."
"Too far. But if it's any consolation, I'll bring the team over myself," Lou offered.
"Sure. I know how to manage a horse."
Courtney raised her eyebrows as if to say, Now, that's interesting.
Lou seemed momentarily pleased. "Welcome to Amish country," she said. "Loosen up. Have some fun!"
Annie was surprised by Lou's sudden offhand approach.
"So what time is breakfast?" Courtney asked.
Courtney's mouth fell open. "You're kidding, right?"
"Too early?" Annie asked, stifling a grin.
"And don't forget," Lou added, "church is right afterward."
Courtney groaned. "Uh, that's a really long ordeal, right?"
Annie and Lou exchanged glances.
"C'mon, Court," Lou said. "We talked about this. You'll have a front-row seat."
Courtney sighed audibly. "Fine. A three-hour history lesson."
"Yeah, that's the spirit," Lou said.
"Cool. See ya," said Courtney.
They said their good-byes, but Annie could not shake her unsettled feeling. Not because she wasn't somewhat accustomed to worldly folk but because Courtney seemed to have something up her sleeve. Surely she wasn't here simply to tour the countryside or to visit an old friend.
Why'd she come here really? * * *
Years ago Jesse had learned everything he would ever need to know about cows and milking procedures. The practical aspects and the shortcuts allowed by the bishops, including the use of an air compressor to keep fresh milk cooling and stirring in a bulk milk tank, powered by a diesel engine.
But this night, with lantern in hand, he heard only the mooing of Holsteins chained to their wooden stanchions. Milk cows were such an enormous part of his family's livelihood.
The memory of lowing cattle had been planted in his mind for nearly two decades now, since the fateful evening he'd met with Isaac's stubborn father, Daniel, in the Hochstetlers' barn. "You are God's anointed." Jesse had been adamant, cautioning Daniel of the dire situation at hand. "You've rejected almighty God, don't you know? It is imperative that you take up the office of preacher as ordered by the drawing of the divine lot."
Imperative. The word had pounded in Jesse's brain even then. Alas, Daniel had chosen that dark and different path, against the angels of heaven. The first-chosen of the Lord God had stated his decision, slapping his black hat against his thigh for emphasis. "The deed's done. I've made my bed. Now I'll lie in it," Daniel had told him.
Jesse wandered outside, making his way through the snow, strangely drawn to the tall scarecrow over yonder. He stared at it, gritting his teeth. No need to protect a sleeping garden against the boldest of birds in winter, and spring was months away. One look at the arctic gray sky and anyone could see that.
Anger, long suppressed, rose in him and overflowed in one hasty gesture. Marching forward, he set down his lantern and began to dismantle the straw man, first tearing away the cold-hardened shirt to reveal the straw body, then the worn black britches. His gloved hands fumbled repeatedly as he breathed in icy air.
Helpless Isaac, his life snuffed out like a wee candle. Barbara's dreams fraught with empty hope, when the reality is in the buried truth.
Jesse thought of his daughter, welcoming yet another worldly outsider into their midst. Where will it end?
His disturbing thoughts pushed Jesse beyond the brink of good sense.
The old hat was next to go, and the wooden crossbeam. When Jesse was done, the pieces lay on the desolate ground.
He piled up the scraps of clothing, along with the wooden structure itself. He carried the whole of it to the refuse pile behind the barn, conscious of a pounding in his temples and heat on his neck.
The raucous cawing from the backyard willow made him stop and look up as he made his way toward the house. In the moonlight, he saw half a dozen blackbirds perched boldly on the uppermost branches.
Predators will come no matter